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AJ survey results: RIBA is out of touch but not yet out of time

RIBA

The AJ’s online survey reveals a disconnect between the institute and its members, but strong support for its continued existence

‘We want an institute, we want this institute, but we want it to function,’ says RIBA past-president Paul Hyett.

To put it even more bluntly, the Portland Place-based organisation is broken.

Of the 326 architects, students and industry professionals who responded to the AJ’s online survey, a worryingly high number (56 per cent) felt the institute was poor value for money, London-centric and failed to represent them and their needs.

Almost half of the architects polled (45 per cent) said they were pessimistic about the RIBA’s future.

AJ RIBA survey

AJ RIBA survey

This is unsurprising, given that the institute has been dogged by low morale, internal wranglings and a series of off-mission, headline-grabbing issues, ranging from the highly controversial Palestinian motion – which past-president Stephen Hodder confessed made him ill – to disputes over the institute’s governance and accusations of institutionalised racism.

In recent months RIBA HQ has also seen the departure of several senior figures, including its chief executive Harry Rich – leaving a ‘strategic vacuum’ which has yet to be filled (AJ 04.02.16).

While most architects value the RIBA, the consensus is that it is simply not delivering

And yet, while 88 per cent of those polled said the institute’s management needed a shake-up, the profession remains remarkably committed to the 182-year-old organisation.

More than three quarters of architects who responded to the online survey said that, despite all its flaws, the RIBA was still needed.

AJ RIBA survey

AJ RIBA survey

‘The results show that while most architects value the RIBA, the consensus is that it is simply not delivering,’ says RIBA councillor John Assael. ‘Harshly interpreted, it is a vote of no confidence in the way the RIBA – both council and executive – delivers for architects.’

Architect and former RIBA councillor Chris Roche adds: ‘The membership wants structural change, and in my view the institute needs to be both bold and radical, in addressing members’ concerns.’

So what is the RIBA getting so wrong?

A major fear among those polled is that the charity – described as an ‘old civil service institution model’ by one respondent – has lost touch with its membership.   

One 70-year-old architect, who recently resigned from the RIBA after 40 years, told the AJ: ‘The institute is no longer run by its members for its members. Instead it is run by its salariat of senior officials more interested in exercising their power and enhancing their own benefits than in answering to members and their needs.’

Another respondent to the survey said: ‘[The RIBA] desperately needs to get back to grass roots, championing architecture and architects and engaging the public on a more local, street level.’

Worryingly for the institute, fewer than half of architects said they were involved with RIBA activities.

AJ RIBA survey

AJ RIBA survey

And despite a whopping 78 per cent of architects feeling the institute is London-centric – a figure rising to 89 per cent among those based outside the capital – it is actually regional architects who are more involved and happier with the service the institute provides.

Just 16 per cent of architects said they were getting value for money from their membership, which costs them upwards of £260 per year, and less than a third believed the institute was succeeding in its mission to champion better buildings, communities and the environment.

Furthermore, just one in 10 felt the institute championed architects well, with 63 per cent agreeing that it should represent both its architect members and architecture.

AJ RIBA survey

AJ RIBA survey

‘The RIBA is not particularly effective in a number of important areas,’ says Anthony Hudson, founder of Hudson Architects. ‘It fails to properly understand the business side of running a practice, and has done nothing I can see that helps us with the nightmares architects regularly have on planning issues. Nor has it made a mark with politicians or helped bolster the role of architects in society.’

Hudson’s views were shared by many taking the AJ survey – 60 per cent said the RIBA should be doing more to lobby government.

But there is hope for the institute from younger members and students, who are not as fearful about its future. Almost a quarter of the Part 1, 2 and 3 students surveyed said they were optimistic about the RIBA. And more than half of these were already involved in activities organised by the institution.

‘Although disappointing for the most part, the results seem to indicate architects’ strong continuing belief in the RIBA’s purpose and potential,’ says architect and RIBA councillor Elsie Owusu. ‘The real question is how the RIBA, post-Harry Rich, can help to create a vision for the 21st-century British architect.’

So how does the RIBA change to meet the needs of these upcoming architects? Alongside a management change and restructuring of the institute’s leadership, what does the profession really want the RIBA to do for it?

Former RIBA director Richard Brindley, who left the institute a year ago, says: ‘The key to success for the institute is getting its balance right between architects (members) and architecture (society), and focusing on the key priorities where it can have the greatest impact and provide the most benefit for all its members across the globe.’

He adds: ‘It is my firm belief that the best future for the RIBA is to focus on supporting and promoting its membership, and we in turn will be the best ambassadors for architecture and the institute.’

RIBA councillor Walter Menteth, comments: ‘The RIBA as an organisation needs to change focus. To release the resources to do so, it could start with its own “red tape challenge” to shed unnecessary costs.’

One survey respondent felt the RIBA could learn from other institutions such as the RICS by offering more qualifications and working internationally.

‘RICS operates internationally,’ they wrote. ‘By creating a strong membership, RICS automatically creates better professionals and better “architecture”. Being a national institution is old school and obsolete.’

So could current RIBA president Jane Duncan’s recent public stand on the Garden Bridge’s procurement be the start of a new, proactive, vocal era for the institute?

Since Duncan began her presidency in September, she has appointed a cabinet of ambassadors intended to reach out to specific areas of the profession, remodelled the presidential office to make space for members and begun a consultation on the future of Portland Place.

Duncan’s watch has also seen the exit of former chief executive Harry Rich – a departure that previous presidents had unsuccessfully tried to instigate.

Many of those surveyed believed Duncan had set off in the right direction – though most felt it was still too early to judge her presidency.

Elspeth Clements, founder of Clements and Porter Architects and a former RIBA councillor, comments: ‘The RIBA has become an unwieldy bureaucracy with decisions and actions taken by the executive instead of the memberships. There is a disconnect between the RIBA and the memberships.

‘[But] Duncan seems to be looking at the issues and, so far, has shown herself to be effective.’

Meanwhile the RIBA’s interim chief executive, Alan Valance, says he is happy to listen to comment and criticism from the profession.

‘These are interesting results and we will look carefully at them,’ he says. ‘I’m just a few weeks into my new role at RIBA, but one of my first actions has been to encourage feedback and fresh ideas from our members, non-members and staff on how we can do things better.

‘We are hard at work finalising our strategy for 2016-2020, which has been developed following extensive consultation with our members and others across the built environment and creative industries and will guide the future direction of the RIBA.’  

He adds: ‘Other significant consultations in recent years are being implemented and reflect our commitment to ensure the institute and the architecture profession are carefully reviewed and stay as relevant as possible to all our audiences, including our 40,000 worldwide members.’

The opinions of architects are clear. They still want the RIBA but they want it  to work for them. The results are a wake-up call.

AJ RIBA survey

AJ RIBA survey

Three past presidents on the results of the AJ’s RIBA survey

Stephen Hodder (2013-2015)

’I have seen great strides over the seven years I have been engaged with the institute, whether it be promoting the value of architecture to a wider public, re-evaluating education models (and meeting the demand of more schools seeking RIBA validation), influencing decision-makers on key building environment issues, or helping members to better shape their services in support of better client outcomes.

’Our regional structure seeks to offer a more immediate and local access for members, and is unique among professional institutes.

’I agree that the organisational structure needs refreshing because there is significant internal duplication, and efficiencies could be introduced that could optimise services in favour of a better member offer.

‘Your survey conveys the message that the RIBA needs to work harder, do more in support of its members, and communicate more effectively.’

Paul Hyett (2001-2003)

’To the frequent (often disheartening) complaints about the RIBA, I responded that the options were: no institute, another institute or this institute. There’s no case for none, another institute would be divisive and wasteful, so we must make this one work and, if you can, get involved.

’The AJ’s survey endorses my advice. So take some comfort all you council, regional and branch representatives who work so hard for us.

’But those in high office (elected and executive, especially in London) read it carefully and heed the warning; the message is crystal clear. Support for our institute and optimism for the institute’s future is high, particularly among the young. But they think you are too London-centric and poorly managed. And they don’t know what you do.

’We couldn’t have a better platform to build on: young people committed and optimistic. So get out there. Meet them. Involve them. Loosen up. And let’s find a new president under 30 and establish council, region and branch average ages for representatives under 35. And don’t give me the old tired arguments: William Pitt to all dissenters.

’The message is clear: we want an institute, we want this institute, but we want it to function.  So go for it.’

Marco Goldschmied (1999-2001)

’There is a startling contrast between the very poor ratings for value for money, future optimism, management and inadequate championing of architects and architecture on the one hand, and the high ratings of respondents who feel the need for the RIBA to continue.

’It’s classic management gridlock: a 19th-century hierarchical structure, modelled on Whitehall, of self-aggrandising six-figure salaried chief executives (one even styled himself director general) regarding elected presidents and council as a necessary evil to preserve a veneer of democracy. It’s time for radical change.

’The chief executive post should be abolished and replaced by a collegiate structure and a paid elected architect president required to serve for three or four years. Council should be reduced in size by at least a third and the RIBA Board (which, I am told, has become bureaucratic and tyrannical) probably abolished.

’The RIBA needs to widen the appeal of the post of presidency to the many able architects who cannot afford to take two or three years unpaid leave from their practices or employment. If paid, the job would attract high-calibre people who could afford the time to combine the roles of president and chief executive and give the Portland Place tree the shake-up and pruning it needs to reflect the needs of architects in the 21st century.

’Alas, I fear the self-perpetuating nature of an institution such as the RIBA will almost certainly guarantee more of the same and a continuing disenchantment and frustration with what it is clearly failing to deliver.’

Further comments

Chris Roche, architect and past-RIBA councillor

’This is an important and critical review which cannot be ignored by the Institute.The survey is unequivocally clear – the RIBA needs to change; is too London-centric; provides poor value and neither champions architects well nor architecture. The membership wants structural change, and in my view the institute needs to be both bold and radical, in addressing members concerns.’

Richard Brindley, former RIBA director

’The AJ’s survey highlights the challenge for the RIBA. The vast majority of architects and students think that the RIBA is necessary and should represent both architecture and architects. But they also don’t feel that the RIBA is currently doing that job well and needs to change. This points to a great opportunity for the RIBA, with a supportive profession (real and potential membership) and an ambition to progress.

Key for the RIBA is getting the balance between architects and architecture

’There are many challenges, changes and variety of needs facing the architects’ profession and the Institute. The key to success for the Institute is getting its balance right between architects (members) and architecture (society) and focusing on the key priorities where it can have the greatest impact and provide the most benefit, for all its members across the globe.  In recent years the RIBA has focused more on ‘architecture’ and make great progress in its public outreach, but now is the time for the RIBA to refocus more on developing, supporting and representing the profession.  The AJ survey results clearly indicate that is the way forward.  This is also the stated ambition of the current president Jane Duncan and appears to be the thrust of the RIBA’s emerging strategy for the next 5 years.

’The RIBA has evolved and changed dramatically over its 182 year history to make it today the internationally respected Institute and recognisable ‘brand’ for professionalism in architecture, which reflects the talents and standards of its members. It is my firm belief that best future for the RIBA is to focus on supporting and promoting its membership, and we in turn will be the best ambassadors for architecture and the institute. 

’Thanks AJ for bringing this issue to the fore, and hopefully it will boost the RIBA Councils’ plans to ‘think architects’ again!’

Tom Gresford, founder, Gresford Architects

’The RIBA is a wonderful institution with a history and prestige most other professional bodies can only aspire too, and the potential to hugely influence the direction our government and society take on some of the critical issues of the day - especially the housing crisis and tackling climate change – as well as serve and promote the architectural profession. That this potential is currently unrealised sorely needs to be addressed for the benefit not only of our profession, but for the country as a whole.’

Shahriar Nassar, Belsize Architects

’This is an interesting survey - and it’s encouraging that the majority of respondents say the RIBA is needed. That’s a good starting point for change. There is pessimism about the future of the RIBA and uncertainty about whether it is doing the right things for members. It may of course be worse: that the RIBA is doing good work but members do not recognise it. It’s surprising, for instance, to see so many who thing the RIBA is not championing better building. Improved communication about what members need and what the RIBA is doing on their behalf is critical.’

Russell Curtis, director, RCKa

’The results demonstrate that the RIBA remains a vital organisation for many practitioners. It’s surprising, however, that the institute appears to be more widely needed outside the capital despite the somewhat paradoxical findings that suggest it’s too London-centric.

RIBA should be more robust in championing design quality

’I don’t consider the promotion of members and an obligation to promote better buildings to be mutually exclusive, although I would like to see the organisation be more robust in championing design quality – whilst at the same time speaking out against poor design, procurement and general bad practice.

’What seems pretty universal, though, is pessimism about the RIBA’s future. That around only half of respondents choose to engage with RIBA activities is indicative of a wider malaise; if we genuinely want to reform the institute for the better then more people need to take an active role in doing so. If such a high proportion of respondents really believe in change, then it’s about time that they got stuck in.’

Readers' comments (2)

  • As Einstein said "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them"
    To increase engagement with the members - we need to get the members to do it themselves.
    You cannot exclusively be a top down institution in 21st century. No matter how much it hurts the way forward cannot be for the protection of the current RIBA economic model. Ambivalence is toxic and when only 11% of the membership can be bothered to vote in RIBA Council elections - we have a major problem that a few comms campaigns will solve.

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  • not solve sorry!

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